Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Justice v. Forgiveness: Which is of Greater Necessity?

Little did I know, when I heisted an interview question that my friend, chickenone, gave to Glyn of thoughtsbyglyn months ago, that it would lead to a blogosphere round table discussion of Justice versus Forgiveness. Maybe I should have known, though. After all, I asked that question of Julie. The word ravin' isn't in her blog title for nothing.

What I couldn't know, is that even if I had imagined that Julie would open this question up to her corner of the blog'verse, that it would come just a couple of days after the worst campus shooting, in fact the worst shooting rampage anywhere in the United States. 33 people dead, more than a dozen others wounded. The tragedy at V Tech makes a post like this both more difficult and more timely.

I saw the headline on Yahoo News just after I finished my Sleeping with Bread post for the week. My first response was one of emotional detachment. As they news reports began saying that this was the worst shooting rampage in American history, I found myself surprised. Surely there had been shootings where more than 33 people had died? I don't know exactly why I thought this. 33 people dead is 33 people too many. But either the nature of the world today-- with the number of tragedies that happen leading me to unconsciously start placing them on a continuum of the number of bodies, from a suicide down the street (1 body) to the 229,866 estimated killed in the 2004 tsunami which struck Indonesia--or, I've seen too many movies with rampant bloodshed and carnage and I've confused fiction with real life.

I then moved to my usual irritation at the initial news coverage. In the first hours of any major event, there is very little to be known, but the News is there, desperately looking for an angle, hashing out theories based on little information, looking for "what went wrong," etc. I knew, though, underneath it all, that once I started hearing personal stories, the impact of it all would hit me. And it did:

  • A news reporter chokes up as he, a father of what I assumed to be college-age children, described the emergency personnel hearing the cell phones of the victims ringing over and over again. He could not help but imagine a parent on the other end of the line, hoping to reach their child to reassure himself that his daughter was okay.
  • The crowd at the convocation held the next day spontaneously bursts into the school cheer as the service ends.
  • One young man, who survived the shootings without physical injury, describes how he and a couple of others, blocked the door to their classroom after the shooter left. He returned and tried to reenter the classroom. Their barricade worked. The student retains him composure throughout the interview until asked how he feels at being described as a hero. His face crumples, he struggles to find words. He can't. Mercifully, the reporter ends the interview.
  • A 76 year old professor, a Holocaust survivor, dies because he is blocking the door into the classroom with his own body. When tragedy becomes personal, when those stories are shared, the larger impact becomes known.

All of this is just to say, that if you add the emotional impact of this tragedy with some raging hormones and an intense discussion with my son yesterday, I am feeling the need to treat my soul gingerly. I'd love nothing better than to go to bed, watch Firefly episodes and snack my way into oblivion. And I have no obligation to contribute to the round table discussion or I could do it in a few days. But, I am an ENFP--with an emphasis on the P. If I don't do it now, I won't do it at all. And I do want to participate.

But first, in the midst of what will be a number of posts on this subject, I want to manage everyone's expectations.

A) I am not an original thinker. I work best in the back and forth of discussion or the response to someone else's thoughts. I'm not sure how good I will be at setting forth any sort of complete, coherent, cogent position on Justice v. Forgiveness. Put me in a room with a group of reasonable people to discuss something like this and I would be great. A situation like that is where I do my best work.

B) I have, as an underlying belief, the idea that we humans are flawed--some of us more than others ;), but all flawed, nonetheless. I believe in objectivity but I don't believe there is a person on the planet who can truly be objective. I believe in Truth, Beauty, Love. These ideas do not just exist in the eye of the beholder. But I think we look through a glass darkly, to borrow a metaphor from Scripture and that only the Creator of all things sees, with accuracy and clarity, what real Truth, Beauty and Love are. Instead, we get glimpses of the real thing. We wrestle and grasp with the meaning of these ideas and we see little bits. I think it is important that you understand that as I say whatever it is I'm going to next. (Being an extremely unstructured extrovert, I haven't planned what I'm going write. I'm just going to start and that's how I'll know what I think.)

I began life as a lover of Justice. As my brain developed, I found myself advocating the cause of Justice At All Costs. Nothing was ever more important. Granted, I think I often confused justice with fairness, but on any multiple choice test, I would always have picked justice as being more important than mercy. This inherent love for justice was the reason I believe that the movies The Killing Fields and Glory ripped me to shreds. More than any tragic romance, those two movies stirred up a primal response in me. Tears flowed. I became mute with the inability to describe the why of my response. But, I know it was because of the injustice portrayed in the true stories of these films.

This led to me being a very vocal critic and self-appointed judge of things I deemed unjust. A minister has an affair? Drop kick him to the curb. He cannot be redeemed. Move on. A student cheats on a school paper. Show no mercy. Give him an 'F'. Kick him out of school. (There's was an awful lot of kicking going on back then.) You screw up, you pay the penalty. (And yes, I was a Christian even then. I just thought that I was capable of having righteous anger. I had discernment. I knew better than anyone else. You are right to recognize the hubris of youth here.)

Then life started smacking me in the face. I can't go into all the details of my laundry list of personal tragedy, but let's just say, some things sucked for me. And, in working through those issues, surviving them, growing through them, God did a wondrous thing: he showed me my mistakes, my imperfections, my screw ups. Slowly but surely, I started paying more attention to the Forgiveness side of things. I began to have an appreciation and some compassion for all those people out there--now identified as people and not just idiots.

Let me interrupt with a caveat here that I am focusing on justice and forgiveness at a personal level right now. Murder, Sexual Abuse, Tyranny. . . I'm not addressing things at that level--yet. (Or maybe not at all today. I'm not sure where this is going still.)

There is a parable in the New Testament that was always problematic for me. A man hires workers. As the day goes on, he hires more workers. He pays all the workers the same wage, even though some of them didn't work as long as the others. That story always rubbed me the wrong way. How is that right, I would ask. But now, even though I am still perplexed by the story, I recognize that it is yet another example of my own ideas about Life, the Universe and Everything not lining up with God's. This issue of Justice, what it is and how is justice meted out, is similar. I still believe in justice and that it is a necessary component of Life. I have just realized that my ability to determine what justice is is impaired. My own biases and lack of perspective, my humanity, mean that I could not always know what is just and what is not. Also, I realized that I had not always received the justice my actions warranted. I have been the recipient of mercy and grace on both the real world and cosmic level.

This place where I stand now does not mean that I don't believe there are greater things to fight for. The movie Amazing Grace is one recent inspiration to me. The fight, led by a small group--many of them evangelicals--to abolish the slave trade through the existing legal system spurs me on. I examine my own sense of futility at having an impact on the greater world around me and I want to pay more attention to how I can fight for justice in this world. But I still believe that the ultimate determiner of what is just and is not just is God. The imperfect vision I have may lead me to question at times what happens in this world. It may lead me to become angry at those who seem to be getting away with the evils they are inflicting upon the world. However, I do not see all things and know all things. I am not Lord of the universe. And I believe that God does see all and know all. Not bound by Time as I am, he will make right what needs to be made right--in the fullness of time.

And Forgiveness? Well, that is intellectually easy for me but personally difficult. Because I have been forgiven by God, I am grateful. I believe I am told to forgive others for the wrongs they do to me. I am to go to others to ask for forgiveness for the wrongs I do to them. But to do that, in reality, oh, that is so hard. I often have to forgive in principle and then hope that I am able to forgive in my heart as time goes on. And so on the personal level, the idea of forgiveness is settled for me, what do I think about forgiveness on a societal level? I'm not sure. I believe in mercy in society. I believe in discernment. All crimes are not equal. I'm hesitant to preach civil forgiveness for a child molester or a murderer. Whether or not the victim makes a choice to forgive, it is such a risk to trust the criminal will not commit another serious crime. I think my difficulty in addressing this part of the question comes because I don't know how to define forgiveness at a level greater than an individual one. So maybe it is best just leave this post open-ended on that point.

Ultimately, my answer to the question of which is of greater necessity, justice or forgiveness? I think it is clear that I don't believe you can pick one over the other. Justice and forgiveness are both necessary and both bigger than any one human mind can wrap itself around. But I do think it is a good thing to do, this examining of these big ideas. You never know when you are going to need to use your beliefs and apply them to your life.


V-Grrrl said...

OK, I'm struggling here to retrieve an Old Testament bible verse out of my brain. Something like "Justice and mercy have kissed."

Love that phrase, the idea of the two concepts being united in love.

Julie Pippert said...

First, oh man, you hit on my Yellow Journalism issue that I recently ranted about. Like you, I am grabbed by the personal stories.

I once waited for those. Then, almost like a sports fan wearing a "lucky" shirt to support the team in a win, I'd pore over the names, snippets of life, and cry, as if my grief over the individual somehow helped assuage the wrong. Made a right. Helped me understand ym response to the tragedy.

This time, I avoided. That is not my person. That is someone else's person, and God Go With Them. But not me. This time, I tried to cinsider the broader angle.

Next, you hit on the other point of mine about journalism and that is the PERCEPTION the overblown, sensationalistic newstainment leaves us with: that things are really THAT bad, worse than they really are, even. I wrote about that study where people's WAG about the murder rate was very disproportional to the real rate.

Friend, you are a plenty original thinker.

And it's so interesting to me the differnt approaches to this topic. You, me, and Roz all did a journey of evolution of belief, tying it in with the personal. Gwen zoomed in and out from personal to broad, with a literary connection, a tool Aliki also used.

It's so amazing.

And for you too:

You roundtablers are blowing my mind big time. THANK YOU! I really needed more POVs, more discussion to help settle some thoughts rattling around my head and heart (both of which I appear to use to think sometimes LOL). And if this paragraph looks familiar it is because I think I will c&p it w/in each of my comments because by gum it is universally true.

Terri B. said...

I think we often see things as either/or when in fact the two things (such as justice and mercy) can take place at the same time.

I was just reading in Proverbs and saw this:
"It is not good to be partial to the wicked or to deprive the innocent of justice." Proverbs 18:5

An interesting thought especially when applied to personal justice/mercy vs civic justice/mercy. What may be right for me to do personally (show mercy and forgiveness) may not be the right civic course of action (justice). We (my husband and I) are currently dealing with this concept of personal vs civic dealings in justice and mercy. What is the correct response to an individual by us personally is quite different than the duty of the civic authorities in dealing with this same individual.

Dealing with this issue is one of the most heartbreaking and stretching things I've ever had to do.

jen said...

Ah. First, thanks for your comment my way today, and second, I agree with your line of thinking of how one can't trump the other, and both, depending on your societal/spiritual context are critical. And then throw in some perception. Wow.

Julie's comments were good as well...i am glad we've made each other's acquaintences today over a challenging and personal topic. Nicely done!

Beck said...

Gorgeous post. The personal stories are what makes it, indeed, personal for me as well.

Mel said...

I paused with my fingers on the keyboard, unsure of how I wanted to contribute.

I guess I'll say this:

We're all children of G-d.

And as believer of 'an ever loving G-d', I fail to believe His love for Hitler was/is less than His love for me.

Love works for me.
And everything about love--moves me towards the me I was and am designed to be. This much I 'feel', day after day after day.

LOL For one who wasn't sure where she was going to go with this, I sure do type a lot anyway, huh?

Mary-LUE said...

V-Grrrl, That reference intrigued me and this is what I found:

Psalm 85:10 (KJV)

"Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other."

I love that verse. Thanks for introducing me to it.

Julie, Thanks! This was a really great thing to do. I'm glad I pushed myself forward. It was worth it. I've been making the rounds and have found some interesting POV's. I don't agree with them all, but I've been able to share and people have responded in a very respectful way.

Terri, I can't imagine the struggle. I'm sorry. Sometimes I think justice is mercy.

Jen, Thank you. It was good to head over to your place. I have been aware of your blog and the Just Post awards for awhile. I'm glad I had this reason to head over. Thanks for your thoughtful words.

Beck, At times like these, there is quote from Madeleine L'Engle (which I have to look up to get it right) which talks about need the personal in order to grasp the bigger picture. She uses the example of homelessness. It is such a big issue that it is hard to get hold of it. If you see one homeless person, though, and either know their story or can really look at him/her, it opens it all up for you. (She, of course, said it magnificently.)

Mel, That Hitler is alway a stumbling block. For me, at least. I agree with you 100% that God cares about each and every one of us equally. That being said, not everyone reaches out to Him and accepts his grace. AND, we are all responsible for our choices. This could go into a whole dialog on judgment and redemption, etc. I think, that minus the salvation that comes from God (which has to be accepted, I believe), there are consequences. For someone like Hitler, if he hasn't reconciled with God, I think, well, I don't think what happens for him after death is in any way pleasant.

Shari said...

My younger brother and I had a conversation yesterday about how emotionally detached we felt from the V-tech story, which surprised us, because we were both so deeply impacted by Columbine, the tsunami and 9/11. Have we become numb? That was our question, and I'm not sure if I have the answer. As I've heard more personal stories, my heart has broken more for the people involved, but I still haven't felt what I would normally feel in these circumstances. I think being wrapped up in my own grief (losing Bonnabelle) made it harder to enter other people's sadness this week, but I'm not sure if that's the only reason I've felt detached.

I have also been a fierce lover of justice since I was young. I don't know where it came from . . . it just bubbled up inside of me in a way that I could not contain. I devoured books about slavery and Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and books about the Holocaust when I was young. When I was in high school, I stopped a fight between two high school boys, because one had a brace around his neck and I couldn't stand by and just watch him get hurt (there were hundreds of people watching and I was the only one to step in and DO something). I can hardly stand watching movies about injustice, but at the same time, I can't stop watching them. And yet, because I've been at the hands of others who did not dole out mercy, I'm also a lover of mercy. Les Miserables moves me to sobs, every time. I don't know where that leaves me, in terms of justice vs mercy, but I tend to feel passionately about each situation as it comes. Yes, I believe in justice, especially when it comes to murderers and child abusers and such, but I also believe they are loved by God just as much as I am loved. There should be consequences for their actions, but there should also be mercy. It's not up to me to judge their actions . . . it's up to the courts and ultimately, God.

I remember how moved I was when I saw Glory, so I guess I should rent The Killing Fields also. It sounds like we're touched by the same types of movies, Mary.

We should still do lunch if you ever head out this way . . . I'm dying to meet my fellow ENFP, and the person who moves me so much with her writings. :-)

thailandchani said...

Came by way of Julie's site as well.

You expressed yourself beautifully and I understood easily what you were trying to say. I was able to see how your mind works by your narrative approach to the question.

While we come from very different philosophical underpinnings, I can also find things here to agree with. We are all flawed. We are all here on this plane of existence to grow, to become enlightened. There are many roads to that and I'm sure the ability to let go of wrongs is at the top of the list.

Thanks for this post. :)



Mary-LUE said...

Shari, I will definitely work on getting out your way. I, too, want to meet the person who takes such beautiful pictures, and I'm always up for getting acquainted with another ENFP!

Chani, Thanks for stopping by. It is always a challenge, when coming from different points of view to look for the things you have in common. I appreciate your efforts to do that on this topic. Thank you.

Aliki2006 said...

Beautiful, thought-provoking post, mary-lue--I must ponder it a bit more, but there's so much here to think about.

Gwen said...

I am glad to see, in a very self-centered way, that I am not the only person who took the personal approach to this issue.

I have often heard it stated that the most difficult person to forgive is oneself, but I don't know that that's true for me. I am hard on myself, and I am constantly aware of my flaws, but they are not so troubling that they change my behavior in the moment in the way I might hope. In this way, I feel like Mr. Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice, who said that his daughter needn't worry about him as he would not be nearly as hard on himself as he deserved and that his discomfort with his errors would soon pass.

But maybe thinking all that is just a different way of being unforgiving.

I enjoyed your thoughts on this. Good show!

atypical said...

That parable is a bit of a stumbler isn't it? It has actually put a whole bunch of thoughts in my head that I may some day explore in writing (when the kids aren't standing between my face and the screen to beg attention and lunch - naughty mommy!).

Love this post. Maybe I'll get the chance for more intelligent commentary later.


Anonymous said...

Can't properly get my head around this tonight, but wanted to add my name to the list of legalists. Even my shrink says I'm a legalist. That must make it true, no? ;-)

Jozet said...

"Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other."

I love this. Have you ever seen the movie Babette's Feast? It's a key line in the movie.

Also - another movie - Matewan, about the coal miners and the labor unions in Virginia in the 30s. The young man who is a preacher talks about the parable of the workers in the field, but at the end changes the ending and says that it wasn't just - and in the context of the story of the miners and the mine owners, his revised ending is difficult to argue with.

Anyway...great post. Like I said over at Julie's, I'm still stuck on righteous anger over the latest incidents, although directing it at bigger fish than Cho. I can't think straight about justice and forgiveness right now. But the collections of posts on the topic and wonderful.

Shari said...

The impact of this tragedy finally started to sink in yesterday, as I watched some footage of the victim's families last night and was moved to tears. I listened to a Beth Moore Bible study this morning, and some of her thoughts on mercy and compassion hit me. I don't know if this applies directly to the V-Tech situation, but since the concept of justice vs. mercy has been on my mind since I read your post, I thought it was interesting to hear this today. She was reading from Exodus 33:19-20.

I want you to read it with me, it says in verse 19, and the Lord said, I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you. And I will proclaim my name the Lord in your presence. And I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But he said, you cannot see my face for no one may see me and live. Now I want to pull back to a statement because it is very unsettling for us to see "I'll have mercy on whom I'll have mercy, compassion on whom I'll have compassion," but I want to say something to you, we will never be as merciful as God -- never! If you want to see that in scripture, all you have to do is look at the book of Jonah. He said, I knew if I went and preached to them that they would repent. I knew it! Now that's compassion, isn't it? I love what my pastor said last Sunday in preaching a sermon. He said, "Let me tell you something," when he was talking about giving up on seeking the approval of man and instead seeking the approval of God. He said, "Let me tell you something, God's approval is a whole lot easier to get than man's!" What an amazing thought. What God is saying is this, I get to have compassion on who I want to. I get to have mercy on who I want to. Because we would shut them down long before God would shut them down. God is compassionate, the Psalmist says, to all he's made. We're thinking we're going to stand in heaven and go, I can't believe you forgave him! We all read about him in the newspaper! You understand what I'm saying? God's going to say to us, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." And where that unsettles us and we immediately think negatively, we've got to shift our paradigm and realize that God is the merciful one; it is man who runs short of mercy, it is man who runs short of compassion.

MarillaAnne said...

I whole heartedly agree with you Mary-LUE. I've enjoyed catching up with you.

EnnuiHerself said...

Another incredible post, Mary-LUE!

I'm a little too mentally drained from writing to fully get my mind around everything that you wrote. But the section where you talked about the moral outrage of your youth really hit home.

What was that you said? The "hubris of youth" when it comes to judging the actions of other. That perfectly explains where I am right now in my personal growth. The outrage that I feel anytime I perceive injustice is the exact reason why I simply can not do religion, at least not in this point in my life. Oddly, I find comfort in your (and others) faith, although I'm still a bit too angry to join you all.